City's Planning Department to oversee landmarks agency

Preservation activists fear moving commission will dilute power as watchdog

May 18, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, a city agency that rules on such sensitive development issues as whether landmarks should be saved or can be demolished, will become part of the city Planning Department, Mayor Martin O'Malley's office announced yesterday.

The merger, which was initially introduced as a City Council bill, has preservationists worried that the reorganization will muzzle the 40-year-old commission and dilute its authority as a watchdog on behalf of buildings of architectural or historical distinction. The reorganization takes effect July 1.

"I'm very concerned about putting [the commission] in the Planning Department. I am afraid it will be a virtual rubber stamp for any administration desire," said Julian L. Lapides, a former state senator who is chairman of the American Antiquarian Society, an independent research library in Worcester, Mass. O'Malley described the reorganization as a combination of agencies that are both involved in overall city planning. CHAP has been part of the Housing Department but has operated independently.

"As we look to the future development of our city, it is critical that we incorporate preservation into our planning and development process," the mayor said in a statement.

CHAP's merger with the planning department was first proposed in a City Council bill introduced last month at the O'Malley administration's request. According to that bill, the city's planning director -- or the director's designee -- would become the head of CHAP.

The proposal upset preservationists, who have scheduled a meeting with City Council President Sheila Dixon for Thursday.

"This is not about where CHAP is located; it is about reducing autonomy, reducing independence," said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit preservation group.

Yesterday, the O'Malley administration withdrew the City Council bill and implemented the merger administratively.

As part of the revamped merger, the preservation commissioners will continue to select the executive director. Kathleen Kotarba, the incumbent, will stay in her job, reporting to Planning Director Otis Rolley III. Kotarba said she welcomed the merger as a way to make "preservation the key feature of early planning."

Judith P. Miller, CHAP chairwoman, said her commission had been unhappy with the council bill and sought such modifications.

As a result of the concessions, Hopkins said he was taking a wait-and-see attitude. "The devil is in details," he said.

Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, a statewide advocacy group, said the merger can have good consequences if preservation is integrated into the planning process.

But he was concerned about the lack of details, saying, "We don't know what is to be done."

The merger comes at a time when the Planning Department has undergone extensive reorganization under Rolley, who took over in August. Several longtime planners had their jobs abolished and have left the agency.

Rolley said yesterday that the jobs of CHAP's seven employees were safe and their inclusion in the Planning Department increases that agency's staff to 51. The commission keeps watch over 8,000 buildings in 27 city historic districts. Rolley said preservationists' fears about the reorganization were unfounded.

"I don't think there is any reason to worry," Rolley said. "I think you are going to see far more powerful, sensitive and rational planning."

Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who is the City Council's representative on the Planning Commission, said the merger would be a boon to historic preservation.

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